Death Can Set You Free

Unanimous goldmine! I have a question for you. How can someone possibly be born in their 23rd year? Where is the line between Man and Woman? How does it smell when the Motherboard bleeds? What does the Earth sound like? What do you do when The Authority has nukes, and you’re just a bunch of kids? These are only some of the questions posed by 2021’s Neptune Frost, an afrofuturist musical film directed by American musician Saul Williams and Rwandan cinematographer Anisia Uzeyman.

Top to bottom, I loved this film. The music, the costumes, the bicycle man, the dove, the giant floating rocks, the land of dreams, even the prophetic dialogue had me on the edge of my seat. The film begins with a lot of questions that Williams and Uzeyman don’t even begin to answer until about the hour mark. As a long-time science fiction fan, I enjoyed wondering, “Yo what the actual shit is happening right now?” For the first two thirds of the movie. If can stomach learning about a new reality and want to go in blind, which I recommend, SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH FOR THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD. And if not, that’s cool.

Shovels and pickaxes chink into a Burundi coltan quarry, with many of the young laborers dressed in greys and oranges that match their boulderous surroundings. An overseer towers over the laborers, clutching his assault rifle as young men mine a mineral critical for computer chips in smartphones. Tekno stops. He puts down his pickaxe. The Earth hums the sweet song of a summer synth wave. He bends down and picks up the rock at his feet. Hearing the Earth’s beautiful song, he holds the heartpiece above his head, like a treasure, or an idol, or a messiah. And then suddenly, without warning, the overseer strikes the stone with the butt of his rifle, plunging the rock into Tekno’s face and killing him. He falls to the ground a cooling sack of meat, his brother Matalusa weeping over the dead body. They hear drums in the background. The camera pans, and some of the miners now play traditional drums, pounding and wailing to the beat of the shovels and pickaxes. And when Tekno finally awakens, it’s as Neptune, the woman she always dreamed of being.

Neptune Frost features the coolest, most interesting portrayal of a trans person I’ve ever seen. Walking through an undersaturated, idyllic land of dreams, the titular Neptune narrates:

Time held a mirror and reflected a world of parallels
of fear and longing,
with no sense of belonging.
But that dissonance became a song in me.
What should have destroyed me
what attempted to gender or “boy” me
Set me free.

It’s here that I realized, about halfway through the film, that the odd choice to have the male Tekno narrate with a female voice wasn’t odd at all, it was because Tekno has always dreamed of becoming Neptune. And Neptune Frost is Neptune’s story. Neptune told it to me, sung it to me, danced it to me. At first, I didn’t want to believe Neptune. The things that attempt to “boy” or “gender” me in my life are not the same as in hers. I doubt that if I die, about an hour later I’ll wake up a super hot hacker genius. But still I thought to myself, how the fuck can she say that all that shit sets her free?

At the heart of Neptune Frost is Digitaria, a haven for the coltan-miners-turned-anarchist-hackers. Inspired by electronic waste landfills, Digitaria boasts giant keyboard key huts, refuse circuit boards, and kids decked out in neon chrome. When Neptune arrives, she stops speaking in prose. When others address her, she responds in poetry, in gospel, the stuff of messiahs. And for me this was evidence that she is a trans fantasy. Dubbed “The Motherboard,” she glitches in and out of existence as she becomes one with the digital heart of the land. She leaves logical conversation behind because she is a dream, a spirit. She, like much of science fiction, is “impossible.” And yet, she is. At least in my life, this contradiction is the heart of the trans experience. Never before have I seen such a powerful reflection of my own experience with gender in any piece of media. Neptune Frost is Neptune’s story because she has literally trans-scended the material plane. The film ends with her staring at the camera, arm outstretched, thrashing in and out of this world. And she is beautiful.

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